Schools out…surf’s up!
For me, the bulk of the subject matter of Surf World is completely foreign. Having grown up in country NSW, I know little about the surf. Sharks concern me- if I’m swimming at the beach, I know that I’m on their turf. Despite our home being girt by sea, I really haven’t made the most of this particular part of the Australian landscape. So I didn’t know what I would make of the exhibition and objects at Surf World.
As you might expect, surfboards visually dominate a lot of the space, brightening it with a range of glossy kaleidoscopic colours that would equally be at home in the Great Barrier Reef, or in a psychedelic flashback from the 60’s. For many of the surfing enthusiast visitors, the opportunity to see the boards used by a range of surfing pioneers and legends is the real drawcard. It’s an opportunity to see up close where surfing has come from, and the subtleties of design that make a board perform. I’m told that surfers just can’t help themselves and regularly touch the objects on display, gently tracing the rail lines with their fingers , sensing the curvature of the board with their palms and obtaining all sorts of new information about the objects through their tactile senses. And although signs at the entry to the exhibition space request that you refrain from touching, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the staff aren’t secretly pleased at just how engaged and appreciative of the collection the visitors to Surf World are.
But it’s not all about the boards. The permanent exhibitions chronicle the growth of surfing culture in both Australia and on the Gold coast. It is largely arranged chronologically by period in rows that guide you back and forth across the space, almost like a piece of flotsam being moved on the shoreline by rolling waves. The exhibitions are complimented with interludes of other surf culture displays, such as filmmaking, music, fashion, photography, ephemera and art. You really don’t need to be a surfer to appreciate the history and material culture that have embedded this activity firmly in our national identity.
Surfing has been described as being as much a lifestyle as it is a sport. It’s not until you see the way that the volunteer staff, largely surfers themselves, engage with both the museum and the visitors that you get a true sense of what that means. I listened with fascination to a spontaneous interchange between staff and a young tourist hailing from the Basque country. With surfing as their common ground, their conversation quickly snowballed into a series of anecdotes about their shared surfing fraternity, peppered with jargon and exotic sounding place names that won’t ever make it onto the common tourist maps (hopefully). I was treated to an interpretation of some of the highlights of the collection by a passionate ex board shaper, who pointed out the craftsmanship of board design, the physics of surfing, as well as the impacts of technology on the industry. It would be tempting to describe Surf World as a special interest museum, but I can see it embodies more community museum values than we might initially give it credit for.
So, as I pointed out earlier, by the end of the visit I was swimming in the subject. My newfound guide friend’s enthusiastic accounts of the feeling of freedom found in the waves was so infectious that I found myself paused longingly in front of a board on the “for sale” rack in the gift shop as I left. Maybe there’s something in this surfing thing after all….